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Sam and Pig

Curly haired pigs, cow panic and a bird dilemma

We are half way through our orchard bird surveys now with all 31 orchards surveyed once already. Early mornings are very hard for me on a normal day, but with dawn getting more and more towards the 4.30am mark and some farms nearly an hour away, I am beginning to wonder if camping on site may be a better idea. Unfortunately, birds are most active at dawn so this is the time we have to be there ready with a GPS and expert ears (as shown below) to count those birds!

Searching for points

Searching for bird survey points

Sam, the bird expert, has been keeping his keen eye (and ear) out for rare birds, as do all birders. So far he has ticked off a few cuckoos, which although aren’t rare as such, it seems to be a competition as to who hears the cuckoo first in spring. I didn’t know this was a game until now! A few willow warblers, black caps and green finches have been heard and seen on a handful of orchards but chaffinches seem to be following us everywhere.

Pigs and Cows

We’ve made some new friends along the way including some curly haired pigs and a herd of young cows. I think Sam was a little jealous of this curly blonde with its luscious locks at first but they became friends pretty quickly nonetheless.

Piggy love

Piggy love

We had another hairy moment at a farm when our trusty GPS led us to a point count location into a field of young cows. Wearing a bright pink coat may not have been the best item of clothing as they were certainly more attracted me, but this could also be the fact I was waving my clipboard and making loud noises to try and deter them. After getting completely surrounded at one point at the same time Sam exclaims “cows have killed people by trampling them before”, I decided we should do the point count – where we stand still for 5 minutes to listen and look out for birds in a 100m radius – behind a safe hedge on the outside of the field instead. After speaking to that farmer about the cow problem we quickly felt unprepared for the countryside, as we learnt that the tell-tale signs of being trampled was waving of the head and kicking the ground, which they weren’t doing. I’m sure the Zoo’s Health and Safety people will be proud of me though.

young cows

Birdy Quarrels

Often in the birding community people tend not to believe others of rare bird sightings unless there is a clear picture to back their story up. So you could say it wasn’t birding if there wasn’t a bit of debate in this fieldwork. The culprit of the debate was right at the top of a birch tree and looked suspiciously to Sam like a Red Backed Shrike. But later when we checked other possibilities, I thought it was more like a Wheatear. Both are unusual sightings for the area but the Red Back Shrike is a bit “more rare” and Sam is sticking with it. Luckily, the sighting wasn’t within our 5 minute point count window as we saw it on the way back to the car. So we can continue to discuss at our leisure.

Early Results?

Unfortunately there have been no big trends in the species found or quantity of birds on different farms yet. I haven’t yet statistically analysed the data so will probably not find anything until that has been tackled. The only early variation I will have to be aware of is the difference between the type of orchard, whether a dessert apple orchard, juice or cider orchard will most likely need to be taken into account when analysing. Stay tuned for next steps in fieldwork and preliminary results soon.

Written by Charlotte Selvey and first posted here in May 2015.


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Dawn C.Turner

Counting birds at 4am: my PhD explained

I thought it was time to tell you all why on earth I have been getting up at silly o’clock to count birds in the orchards of Herefordshire. It was also too windy for the birds today, so I’ve had a day off!

A recent BBC article writing about the benefits of organic farming to wildlife and biodiversity nicely introduces the thought process behind my PhD project. It highlights that having a few organic fields on a farm may increase biodiversity over the whole farm, making room for more species to persist alongside our food production areas. However, this comes at a cost – lower yields. You might wonder: if organic fields produce less food how do farmers still make as much money as non-organic farmers? This is important to consider, as we can see organic farming is important for wildlife, which we try to preserve and protect, but it may be detrimental to farmers, and their pockets.

Dawn orchard view

Dawn orchard view

As we strive to produce more and more food on agricultural lands without expanding agriculture into surrounding woodlands and grasslands, it may cause farming practices to intensify – for example using more pesticides. This land sparing versus land sharing debate is quite large and discusses whether agricultural intensification is best – where protected areas are only areas left for wildlife or whether wildlife-friendly farming, which integrates wildlife and agriculture, is the way forward.

But what if wildlife-friendly farmers can make as much money as conventional ones? Biodiversity has been known to provide benefits to farming, such as pollination and pest/biological control services. These are known in the scientific community as ‘ecosystem services’. The hot topic ecosystem service currently is pollination, with news of wild bumblebee populations halving, potentially due to nicotine-like pesticides sprayed on fields. Pollination is vital to some crops, such as apples, where a higher quality and quantity of crop is produced when pollination has occurred. This problem comes to light when farmers are forced to boost farm pollinator populations by buying bees in a box.

Bees in a box

Bees in a box

Another ecosystem service, the one I am focussing on, is pest control. There are various studies showing that insects and birds, found naturally in our landscape, can act as a pest control and reduce damage to crops. Earwigs control aphid populations and Great Tits have been seen to reduce caterpillar damage in orchards.

Surely by using our local pest regulators to do the dirty work for us, farmers can save money? Pesticide applications are very expensive and a major cost incurred, reiterated by most farmers involved in my study. I am trying to find out whether a pest control service exists in apple orchards of Herefordshire, and whether that service has monetary value to farmers. In other words, will farmers make more money by not using pesticides? Apple yields and pest levels will also be taken into account to make sure overall profits are looked at rather than just the costs spent on the farm.

The way we are going to answer this question is to measure biodiversity on four orchard categories which range from high – low biodiversity levels and high – low pesticide use. Beetles and birds are going to be used as our indicators for biodiversity, which we will measure on each orchard.

Bird surveys are underway

Bird surveys are underway

 

After measuring the amount of natural habitat, such as hedgerows and woodland areas, and biodiversity on each farm we will look at whether or not that biodiversity is acting as a pest control service to the orchard. By using farm pesticide records and closely monitoring Blue Tits and Great Tits, using nest box cameras, we should be able to determine whether those bird species are acting as an ecosystem service and saving the farmer from spraying more pesticides than they would have to if those birds weren’t around.

By installing nest box cameras in some of the orchards we should hopefully catch pictures of what Blue Tits and Great Tits are eating from the orchards, to capture whether the insects they are catching are anything beneficial to farmers or not. Personally, I hope they are… but we will see.

Read my next blog “Curly blonde pigs, Cow panic and a Birdy Dilemma” to see how my fieldwork is going so far.

Thanks to all the farmers who have kindly agreed to let me roam around their farms counting birds in Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire. I wouldn’t have a PhD project without you.

Orchard view

Written by Charlotte Selvey and first posted here in May 2015.


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